In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy slammed into coastal New York and New Jersey, causing 147 deaths and an estimated $50 billion in property damage and traumatizing the nation with televised images of neighborhoods reduced to rubble and stormwater surging through the streets of lower Manhattan. But the magnitude of that catastrophe also made it a catalyst for a transformation in urban planning and infrastructure design—one that may help protect the region against future ravages of extreme weather and rising sea levels from climate change.
Not quite two months after the hurricane, then-U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan went to the Netherlands to see what he could learn from the low-lying European nation’s long history of coping with the continual threat of flooding. His guide was a Dutch water management expert named Henk Ovink who suggested to Donovan that Sandy’s aftermath was a potential pivot point for upgrading climate resiliency policy in the United States. “I said, here is a great opportunity to come up with a new approach,” Ovink recalls.
Ovink advocated a shift away from the time-honored American approach to protecting coastal communities, which relied heavily upon erecting higher and higher barriers around the communities to keep the water out.
That strategy could be overwhelmed by massive storms, and it gave little protection against other threats, such as steadily rising sea levels and flooding from increases in rainfall. Instead, Ovink advocated a more holistic approach, deploying multiple layers of safeguards and designing them to work in synergy so that even if water topped one wall, other mechanisms could lessen the damage from flooding. Beyond that, he wanted to see climate resiliency features subtly woven into the urban landscape and designed so that they would provide other benefits, such as creating recreational areas for residents and anchors for development.
Donovan, who wanted to stage a design competition for climate resiliency projects, liked what he heard from Ovink, and hired the Dutch planner to head the program. Ovink had a novel idea for how to go about it. To get Americans to buy into preparing for climate change, he wanted to radically remake the design process. Instead of imposing solutions to predetermined problems from the outside, he wanted designers to go into communities and do the legwork to find out what they really needed, and then collaborate with them to figure out remedies and build consensus.
“We decided that [we] should not start with a presumption that we know what the problem is,” Ovink explains. “Instead, let’s call for interdisciplinary teams and bring them in and stage a collaborative process with the mayors and public officials, and business leaders, and the people who lost their homes. . . . It was not going to be what you often see happen—a team coming in and saying, ‘We’ve got a cool solution for you; how do you like it?’ I think if you, instead, work together to learn the needs of those communities and understand their perspective, it can really inform those designers and engineers and scientists. And at the same time, working with the teams can give the community a better understanding of the place they live and work in, their vulnerabilities to climate change, and how to deal with them.”
The result was Rebuild by Design, a federal program with support from the Rockefeller Foundation that was launched in June 2013, in which ten design teams were selected and sent into the Sandy-affected region to develop innovative solutions for rebuilding. A year later, at a pair of events in flood-ravaged communities in New York City and New Jersey, Donovan announced the six winning proposals in the competition, which will receive a total of $920 million in funding to make them a reality. “By investing in these proposals, we are going to ensure that when the next storm comes, the region will be safer and better prepared,” Donovan said.
The projects range widely in both concept and scope—from an ingenious system that would use a combination of hard infrastructure and “soft” green public spaces to mitigate the chronic problem with flooding in Hoboken, New Jersey, to an array of breakwaters off Staten Island that would double as habitat for oysters and lobsters—and create a waterfront recreation and educational area. But the common thread is that the projects aim to make climate resilience an unobtrusive part of the communities they protect, and to create value in other ways for the people who live there. Moreover, Rebuild by Design is intended to provide a template for how coastal communities in other regions of the United States could rework their strategies for coping with climate change.
Six Winning Visions
As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio explained when Rebuild by Design’s winners were announced, the region’s Sandy ordeal gave policy makers a powerful warning that they had to change their ways to deal with the changing climate and rising seas. “In this city alone, 400,000 people live in the floodplain—more than any other major city in America,” he said, according to a transcript of his remarks. “We are the ultimate coastal city.
We are who we are because we’re the ultimate coastal city. We wouldn’t trade that in for anything in the world. But it requires of us a new level of preparation and resiliency.”
But in Ovink’s view, it also demanded a new intellectual approach. As a New York Times article about him described, he was puzzled when he visited Far Rockaway with a group of American engineers to examine the Sandy-damaged storm walls that they were rebuilding. Ovink, noting that the walls had been breached before, asked the engineers what would happen if they were again broken by a powerful storm. The reply was: “We’ll rebuild them again.”
That didn’t make much sense to him, but neither did the idea of spending public funds on infrastructure that would be useful only during a 100-year storm. He wanted resilience features that would create value elsewhere.
“If you create a park as a water-storage amenity, you open up the opportunity for development around it,” he explains. “By creating better public space, you raise the value of the surrounding land.”
Thus, “one of the major principles was the idea that climate security plans had to do at least double duty,” explains Eric Klinenberg, a New York University sociologist who served as Rebuild by Design’s research director. “They had to protect people and places from disasters, but also improve the quality of life every day, regardless of the weather.”
With that philosophy in mind, the winning design teams came up with these projects.
The Big U: This $335 million project, designed by a team that included the Netherlands’ Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and the Parsons School of Constructed Environments, is intended to protect a ten-mile (16 km) densely developed but highly vulnerable horseshoe of low-lying land along the southern side of Manhattan, from West 57th Street to East 42nd Street. “That area contains incredibly diverse conditions and different kinds of neighborhoods, from the area around the [United Nations headquarters] to Chinatown, to Chelsea,” explains designer and project leader Jeremy Alain Siegel. But rather than depend upon a single discrete barrier to keep the water out, the Big U’s designers opted for multiple layers of protection, which would not only hinder water entry from the outside but also keep water from spreading within the area. Along the island’s edge, a wide berm and bridges planted with a variety of trees and plants would both impede storm surges and serve as an area for walkers and sightseers. Inside that area, another landscaped berm would subtly weave an elevated path through the Battery, while between Manhattan Bridge and Montgomery Street, ceiling panels attached to the underside of FDR Drive would serve as public art—except during storm emergencies, when they would flip down to form protective walls. As a result, the entire area “is broken up into compartments, like inside the hull of a ship,” Siegel says. “If one is breached, the others still work.”
Living with the Bay: Like the Big U’s designers, the Interboro Team took a multilayered approach with this $125 million plan to protect the south shore of Long Island’s Nassau County, which is continually threatened by not only storm surges, but also nor’easters and other rainstorms that cause destructive flooding. Since residents have been drawn there to be close to the water, totally retreating from the low-lying shoreline or hiding behind an intrusive barrier was not an option. Instead, the designers created a multifeatured “buffered bay” system of dikes, marshes, and water-diverting sluices between streams and rivers, which bolsters the existing environment’s ability to contain and redirect water. One striking new feature would be a dike system that would protect vulnerable sections of Long Beach from 12-foot (3.7 m) surges and be sloped in a way that would create an accessible bayside park and promenade.
New Meadowlands: This $150 million project, designed by a consortium of Dutch architects and professors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, aims to both manage stormwater and promote development in New Jersey’s Meadowlands basin by combining parkland and marshes with a network of berms that also would provide public open spaces, streets, and room for a rapid-transit bus line. The designers envision altering the area’s zoning so that suburban-style single-story buildings with open-space parking could give way to denser, multistory residential development. “These decisions, over time, will enhance the brand and identity of the basin, increase the value of the land, and [increase] the ratable tax returns for the towns concerned,” the designers write in their proposal.
Resist, Delay, Store, Discharge: Sandy’s surge of angry water overwhelmed the city of Hoboken, New Jersey, filling its streets “like a bathtub,” as Mayor Dawn Zimmer described it at the time. But this $230 million project—the handiwork of international design firm OMA—aims to protect Hoboken not only from 100-year storms, but also from the rainfall-induced flooding that Zimmer notes is a continual threat. “We’ve had six flooding events since Sandy,” she explains. “The heavy rainstorms have increased in the Northeast, if you look at what’s been happening over the past 50 years. We need to deal with that, too.” To that end, designers created a multifaceted, synergistic array of both hard and soft defenses. At Weehawken Cove, a new park landscape will serve as a protective wall to block storm surges. Meanwhile, within the city, a newly created green-space park will help to absorb stormwater, delaying its movement and storing it until a system of pumps can gradually remove it. Shohei Shigematsu, director of OMA’s New York office, explains that the plan also creates a new waterfront area that can be used for recreation, and green space that will promote development around it. But the most beneficial effect of the subtle defenses to residents may be psychological. “People typically just want to build a gigantic wall, a kilometer [0.6 mi] away from the coast,” he says. “But that would be an eyesore, and an emotional trigger that would remind you of the horrible incident that made it necessary. The great thing about this initiative is that it doesn’t do that.”
Hunts Point Lifelines: The $20 million project, designed by PennDesign/OLIN, is designed to safeguard the Hunts Point peninsula in the south Bronx, the site of one of New York City’s most critical resources—a massive distribution complex that provides food to 22 million people and pumps $5 billion into the economy annually. According to the team’s proposal, one part of the plan will protect the food hub with a waterfront greenway that would not only serve as a storm-surge barrier but also create a recreation space with views of the working waterfront. A new trigeneration power plant will be built to provide a continuous supply of energy for keeping food refrigerated, even if a storm wreaks havoc on the rest of the electrical grid. Finally, a new pier infrastructure and a marine transfer station would serve as key parts of a maritime emergency supply chain that can keep people along the U.S. East Coast well fed, even when the roads are impassible to trucks.
Living Breakwaters: Staten Island took a particularly brutal beating from Sandy, but its shoreline faces a more insidious long-term menace from wave action and erosion. SCAPE/Landscape Architecture’s $60 million project is designed to protect the area against all of those threats while fostering a resurgence of the south shore’s traditional marine culture built around oyster harvesting. “Climate change is not just about extreme weather events and flooding, but a whole suite of other issues,” explains Gina Wirth, a designer and urban planner on the SCAPE team. “There’s coastal erosion, land loss, high-velocity water, and also the relationship to the shoreline, and the slow disappearance of ecosystems over time.” Rather than building a floodwall, SCAPE opted for a “necklace” of smaller breakwaters as a buffer. Those structures also would serve as artificial reefs that can nurture micropockets of habitat for finfish, lobsters, and other shellfish. To better connect residents and visitors to the shoreline, SCAPE envisions a network of hubs with amenities such as bathrooms, water fountains, storage space for kayaks, and classroom/laboratory space that can be used by local schoolchildren and teachers for studying the marine ecosystem.
Creating an Innovative Process
While the projects selected by Rebuild by Design might be replicable in other parts of the country, the process by which they were created may end up being even more influential. Ovink compelled design teams to go into local communities and work with them—to get a feel for displaced residents’ plight; some of the designers even worked a shift at a local soup kitchen. That effort not only helped inform their work, but also gave the public a chance to learn about the complexity of dealing with climate change and building resiliency.
“One of our goals was to reach people who don’t normally follow design competitions, because the solutions would affect people’s daily lives,” explains Jerome Chou, director of competitions for the Van Alen Institute, which assisted Rebuild by Design. “The mission was: ‘don’t just come up with a design and planning strategies for the next storm, but figure out how to improve life on all the days when you don’t have a Hurricane Sandy.’ ”
Rebuild by Design’s process and its integrative approach to climate resiliency also have won praise from outside observers. Armondo Carbonell, chairman of planning and urban form at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, touts the program as “a real development in the way that planners and engineers are thinking about the relationship between cities and nature. Instead of the old dichotomy—keep nature and the city in separate places—there is this fertile interaction. Instead of retreating, you have this hybrid where you integrate natural processes into your strategy. They’re using nature, and getting it to do some of the work.”
Even as the next stage of implementation on Rebuild by Design’s projects is underway, Ovink already is looking to replicate the program. “I was in San Francisco last week, and we’ve been talking to Boston, too,” he explains. “So yes, we’re going to try to do it in other places as well. There are a lot more places in the U.S. that could benefit from it.”
Patrick J. Kiger is a Washington, D.C.–area journalist, blogger, and author.